4 Lawmakers Lobby From the Heart

Times Staff Writer

Four lawmakers who united to lobby their colleagues for more money to help mentally disabled Californians appear to have won a $42-million boost in this year's budget.

They call themselves the "family caucus," and they are as persistent and well-connected as the Capitol's highest-paid lobbyists, but their interest starts closer to home. Each lawmaker has a family member who is autistic or mentally retarded and holds a job through a state-supported program. The $42 million the family caucus worked to earmark would create hundreds of jobs for other disabled Californians.

"This is the most success anybody's ever had with getting money for the developmentally disabled community," said Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews (D-Tracy). "Sometimes a plan actually comes together."

The additional money is in the budget that legislators are expected to vote on Thursday.

To make her case, Matthews tells colleagues about her 45-year-old son, who spent a dozen years in a state hospital but now works at a Round Table Pizza in Union City.

Assemblyman Russ Bogh (R-Cherry Valley) explains how much his 30-year-old stepbrother loves socializing as he puts wheels on remote-control cars at the Assn. for Retarded Citizens (ARC) in Beaumont.

Assemblywoman Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) relates the relief of knowing that her 50-year-old autistic daughter has friends and productive work waiting for her each day at ARC in Long Beach.

And Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) tells of her 27-year-old autistic son when he calls each night at 9 to talk about his job stacking trays and swabbing tables at a corporate cafeteria in Thousand Oaks.

"Thank goodness there's this opportunity for people like David," Pavley said.

The four lawmakers have visited the governor and arranged for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) to tour a City of Commerce hardware distribution business where the mentally disabled help package and label nuts, bolts and other fasteners. They also gathered 73 signatures of support from colleagues.

The four Assembly members originally sought $59 million to increase state funding for the nonprofit groups that help put developmentally disabled people to work. On Saturday, a conference committee agreed on a lesser, but still substantial, increase of $42 million.

Their plea comes as the Legislature is finalizing the distribution of billions of dollars among hundreds of programs that help California's sick, poor, disabled, elderly, homeless and orphaned.

People with AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, methamphetamine addiction -- all can make compelling cases for budget increases, said Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), who is the chairman of the Assembly panel that oversees the state's health and human services budget.

"You're always robbing Peter to pay Paul," De La Torre said. "If you do X here, that's X amount less that you can give to some other very worthy program.... That's what I'm trying to balance."

Last month, as De La Torre's committee considered the $59-million boost originally sought, a lobbyist alerted Matthews.

"I called Fran, I called Betty, I called Russ, and we all ran down to the meeting room in like five minutes," Matthews said. "We grabbed Hector, pounded on him a little bit with our stories."

The committee eventually voted 5 to 0 for the increase, including Assemblyman Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks), who said he was convinced that the investment would not worsen the state's deficit.

"I can see how it changes lives," Niello said. "I can see how it creates loyal employees."

The state Senate was less forthcoming, voting only for an additional $7 million to aid the developmentally disabled. But a Senate and Assembly conference committee compromised Saturday on the $42-million increase, a day after Nunez had rolled up his sleeves and helped disabled workers at Askew Industrial Corp. in the City of Commerce.

The four lawmakers are optimistic that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who must sign the budget, will agree to the increase. His in-laws, the Shrivers, have a long history of helping the mentally retarded, including founding the Special Olympics. And Schwarzenegger's January budget proposal includes a 3% increase for all community-based programs that help the developmentally disabled -- the equivalent of a $67-million increase.

The $42-million increase would be in addition to that, and the lawmakers made their case to the governor last month in his smoking tent in the Capitol courtyard.

"The governor was sensational," Matthews said. "He was sensitive to it.... I honestly believe if we get money in the budget for it, he'll leave it there."

All the family caucus lawmakers except Karnette must leave the Assembly this year because of term limits, and they say they want to leave a legacy that includes significant raises for the people who coach the mentally disabled at their jobs.

Some of those jobs are based at a nonprofit, such as the Long Beach ARC, where work is brought in and includes assembling kits for conventioneers or applying package labels. Other jobs are based in the community, such as washing cars at dealerships or inserting ads in newspapers. (State funds help pay for the nonprofit workers, but the paychecks of mentally disabled workers are not subsidized.)

The wages of those who help people such as Matthews' son are so low -- typically $8 to $12 an hour -- that employees don't stay long and often aren't as qualified as directors would like.

"We're at poverty level for staff," said Diana DeRodeff, executive director of InAlliance, a nonprofit that serves 400 developmentally disabled adults in Sacramento and El Dorado counties, 300 of them with jobs.

"We can't hire college graduates any more," she said. "We're getting people who can't read and write, couldn't write a case note."

The money the family caucus seeks, DeRodeff said, would allow her to pay about $30,000 a year for an entry-level position -- enough to slow the churn of workers who leave for better-paying jobs.

As a mother, Pavley understands what the high turnover of caretakers can mean for an autistic person.

"They like stability and change is sometimes emotionally difficult for them," she said.

The lawmakers also seek to increase the hourly rate the state pays to the nonprofit organizations, raising it from $27.62 to $35 to cover the wages of job coaches, as well as administration, mileage, insurance, job development and other costs of finding jobs for the disabled and training them to do the work.

Over the program's 20-year history, there has been only one increase in that rate -- a 3% raise in the 2000-01 budget that was largely undone by a 2.5% cut in 2003-04. Since then, the number of available jobs for the mentally disabled through those programs has dropped from 12,000 to 9,000 in California.

More than 86,000 adult Californians have cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, Down syndrome or other forms of mental retardation that make them eligible for the state programs.

Carl London, a lobbyist for the California Rehabilitation Assn. who has a 9-year-old developmentally disabled son, helped connect the four lawmakers. He estimated that the budget boost could help create 1,200 jobs next year -- jobs that keep people out of state institutions and reduce state spending on disability checks.

"If we can get them employed," London said, "it's less expensive for the state. Many persons with disabilities just want to work ... and it's often hard to get the employers to see through their disability and see that they've got something to offer."

And the Assembly members know firsthand the non-monetary value of work.

"I know for my son, when he was able to get a job, it's just made his life complete," Matthews said. "He feels like a contributing adult."

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